ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In the early 1970s, Midwesterners Jim and Kris Jackson moved to New Mexico. They settled in Albuquerque’s South Valley.
Had the Jacksons opted for Tanoan or Four Hills, would there be mixed martial arts in Albuquerque today? Of course. In the 21st century, there’s MMA almost everywhere.
There’s a distinct possibility, however, that had the Jacksons not made their home where they did, Albuquerque would not be the MMA mecca it has become.
The South Valley is where Greg Jackson, a curly haired Anglo kid who didn’t quite fit in, learned about fighting.
Jackson, no longer curly haired and recently turned 40, is one of the world’s most successful MMA coaches. He’s among the sport’s most quoted and most recognizable figures. With longtime friend Mike Winkeljohn, he trains many of the world’s best fighters at their gym – Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA – in a gritty southeast Albuquerque neighborhood.
Jackson’s is a journey that began on the streets and in the schoolyards of his youth. Life back then was tough, he says, for “a skinny-ass white boy.”
He learned to fight as a kid for pride and survival, not for sport.
“(His peers) respected you if you could fight,” he says. “That was always the bottom line, and it taught me a lot about life. Like, it doesn’t matter how good a soccer player you are, or whatever, or how good you are at anything. ‘Can I kick your ass’ is really the bottom line.”
If the above statement conjures an image of a menacing man with a perpetual scowl, know that Jackson is the complete opposite.
“He likes everybody,” says Winkeljohn, the demanding yang to Jackson’s nurturing yin in their gym. “We all have to take care of our own, but he’d give you the keys to his car if you asked. He’s that nice a guy. He really is.”
Jackson, though, also is a perfectionist who does nothing halfway. Rather than simply throwing down pell-mell with the antagonists of his youth, or just lifting weights to get bigger, stronger and more intimidating, he looked, listened, studied and imagined.
The martial arts – mostly self-taught – became his passion.
“Of course, he drew influences from a lot of people,” says Stephanie Jackson, who met her future husband as one of his students in 1997 and now serves as Jackson-Winkeljohn’s chief financial officer. “(But) he’s an incredible thinker. He’s very creative. He always evolves. He’s physically incredibly talented, a super hard worker, and all that came together.”
At 17, fresh out of Rio Grande High School, Jackson began sharing his ever-developing repertoire at a kickboxing school on west Central. He later moved to an oversized garage behind a house in the North Valley, then to two locations in a strip mall off San Mateo between I-40 and Menaul.
He labeled his creation, primarily a blend of grappling and submission holds, “Gaidojutsu.”
Meanwhile, Tom Vaughn was searching.
Vaughn, born and reared on the East Coast, was a wrestler as a youth. He got his exposure to martial arts in Albuquerque at AKKA Karate under the tutelage of the late, great Bill Packer and competed in traditional martial arts.
But, Vaughn says, “I knew there was something else. … I just knew there was more.”
Brad Ahrensfield, a student of Gaidojutsu, introduced Vaughn to Jackson. They, with Chris Luttrell, who had been a three-time state wrestling champion (1980-82) at Manzano High School, became the teaching foundation of what would become mixed martial arts in Albuquerque.
Among their first students were a former New Mexico Highlands football player, Keith Jardine, and two former Albuquerque high school wrestlers, Thomas Schulte and Diego Sanchez.
Schulte, a 1999 Valley graduate, had hoped to wrestle at the University of New Mexico. But ‘ 99 was also the year UNM dropped wrestling.
Schulte was neither a good enough student or wrestler to get an academic or athletic scholarship out of state. He and his family weren’t rich enough to foot out-of-state tuition.
“So,” he says, “I started looking for something else to do that I could kind of get obsessed with, since wrestling wasn’t really an option for me anymore.”
One day on his fact-finding tour, he walked into Jackson’s gym.
Someone there – Schulte doesn’t remember his name – “showed me an ankle lock and a couple of chokes.
“It’s all I’ve done ever since,” he said.
There was, though, this one problem. While Vaughn, Luttrell, Ahrensfield, Sanchez, Jardine and Schulte all loved to compete, Jackson wasn’t interested. The art of self-defense, not the thrill of competition, was his calling.
“I grew up doing what I did, and that was enough for me,” he says. “For me, believe it or not, I never wanted to be an MMA coach. The whole sporting thing got sprung on me by everybody else. I never really wanted it.”
Thus, in the late 1990s, Jackson’s students practically had to apply a wrist lock to have him accompany them to grappling tournaments and rudimentary fighting shows in neighboring states.
“They talked him into it,” Stephanie Jackson says, “and they were incredibly successful right off the bat.”
The team’s repertoire, Greg Jackson says, continued to grow as a result of those tournaments.
“Grappling-wise, we innovated very quickly,” he says. “We caught up (to other competitors) very quickly, and then we passed them. We were winning, pretty much from the get-go.
“(Luttrell) would travel and see something and bring it back, and we’d build on it. … Constantly trying to evolve and innovate.”
Gradually, Jackson came to embrace the competition he shunned at first.
“As I look back 22 years later, (competition) fuels the need for innovation. … You can get real complacent, I think, really quickly, if you don’t have kind of an escalating arms race forcing you to be better than you were.”
Into the cage …
Meanwhile, MMA was gradually sorting itself out.
“Everywhere we’d go, they’d have different rules,” Jackson says. “Sometimes you’d have bare knuckles, but to punch you could only use the open hand. And they were 20-minute rounds. Other places they were, like, seven-minute rounds but you could use closed fists.
“There was no unification. It was just kind of the Wild West.”
By 2001, Schulte, Jardine and Sanchez were fighting and winning on cards staged by organizations like Gladiator Challenge, Ring of Fire and Rage in the Cage.
King of the Cage, founded by California businessman Terry Trebilcock, became the Jackson fighters’ organization of choice. Vaughn became KOTC’s promoter in the Southwest. Sanchez, Jardine and Schulte compiled a 15-1 record on King of the Cage cards from 2002-04.
Then came The Ultimate Fighter.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship MMA circuit was created in 1993, but struggled to find identity and public acceptance until Dana White persuaded his friends Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta to buy the company in 2001. They and fighters such as Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Ken Shamrock and Randy Couture made the UFC what it is today – a billion-dollar enterprise that dominates its field in a fashion few entities in any walk of life can equal.
Albuquerque had no foothold in UFC, however, until Sanchez was invited to compete in The Ultimate Fighter – half-competition, half-reality show – that debuted in 2005.
Jackson hated the idea. He advised Sanchez not to participate.
“I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, God bless me,” Jackson says, laughing. “I’m famously terrible at calling fads and stuff.
“Everything I think, ‘This is gonna catch on, this is really cool,’ nobody cares about. Everything I think, like, ‘Give me a break, that’s never gonna work,’ always is like gangbusters.”
Jackson credits the late Charles “Mask” Lewis, co-founder of the MMA-themed TapouT clothing brand, with changing his mind – though he never forbade Sanchez from committing to TUF. That was not and is not Jackson’s style, his wife says.
“He’s like, ‘This my opinion, but you’re grown men, or grown women, do what you want,'” Stephanie Jackson says. “He’s never imposed his will on fighters. They do what works for them.”
So, Sanchez went on The Ultimate Fighter, won the inaugural TUF middleweight tournament and was awarded a UFC contract.
Today, more than 40 Jackson-Winkeljohn fighters – more than from any other gym – are under contract to the UFC.
Another coup and another milestone was French-Canadian MMA legend Georges St-Pierre’s decision to train with Jackson in 2007.
“What was nice about that situation,” Jackson says, “is that (St-Pierre) asked us; we didn’t volunteer. … It was a real humbling honor. It still is, when I think about it.”
The Packer factor
That, 2007, was also the year Jackson and Winkeljohn officially joined forces and opened the gym on Acoma SE.
Winkeljohn, a Manzano High School graduate, became interested in martial arts after a smaller, better-schooled kid got the better of him in a fight as a teen.
Like Vaughn, Winkeljohn studied karate under Packer at AKKA. A world-champion kickboxer, he opened his own gym, where he trained – among others – champion kickboxer-turned-champion boxer-turned MMA fighter Holly Holm.
Schulte, who briefly trained at AKKA as a teenager, credits Packer, as much as Jackson, with the popularity MMA has come to enjoy in Albuquerque.
Close your eyes and throw a dart, he says, and you’re likely to hit a Packer disciple.
“(Packer’s tutelage) is really what got Albuquerque on the map as far as martial arts goes,” Schulte says. “… That’s really what made the foundation for the talent pool in Albuquerque.”
It was Luttrell, Winkeljohn’s friend and fellow Manzano Monarch, who introduced him to Jackson. Long before they became partners at the gym on Acoma, the two had been training the same fighters.
“Basically, all the guys would come up to my gym to do their standup and then they’d be down at Greg’s gym to do the ground stuff,” Winkeljohn says.
“It just made sense to put it all in one facility.”
Vaughn, meanwhile, had opened Jackson’s Gaidojutsu West at three different locations, finally settling in on Lomas just east of the railroad tracks. Schulte went with him, to be joined in 1999 by a precocious teenager named Carlos Condit.
Eventually, Vaughn split from Jackson’s and, with his wife, renamed their gym FIT-NHB (Fighters in Training-No Holds Barred).
“It just kind of amounted to differences in the way I wanted to approach this, as opposed to the way Greg was doing it,” Vaughn says. “Which is the case a lot of times, that people go in their own direction.”
Condit now trains at Jackson-Winkeljohn, but FIT-NHB has two fighters – Tim Means and Ray Borg – under contract to UFC. The Vaughns have maintained close ties with King of the Cage and have had many KOTC champions.
Meanwhile, Albuquerque’s MMA presence continued to grow.
In 2008, a gangly former junior-college wrestler named Jon Jones, a native of upstate New York, made Jackson-Winkeljohn his training base.
Jones (20-1) is now the UFC light heavyweight champion and the consensus pound-for-pound best MMA fighter in the world.
Jackson-Winkeljohn has 10 fighters ranked among the UFC’s top 10 in their respective divisions. Phoenix light heavyweight Ryan Bader, ranked ninth in his weight class, is trained by Vaughn.
Women’s MMA continues to grow in Albuquerque, as well.
Holm, the former world champion boxer, is 7-0 in the cage and recently signed with the UFC.
Jackson-Winkeljohn’s Michelle Waterson is the Invicta FC atomweight (105-pound) champion. FIT-NHB’s Brenda Gonzales is the King of the Cage women’s flyweight (125-pound) champion.
It hasn’t all been good, of course, and hasn’t all been easy.
In the cage, there have been losses as well as wins. Outside the cage, there have been political battles.
Jackson-Winkeljohn, in its high profile, has become the Yankees/Cowboys of MMA – revered and despised in perhaps equal measure.
In 2012, when Jackson advised Jones to pull out of a UFC title fight because of a late switch of opponents, White called Jackson a “(bleeping) sport killer.” Over the years, White has had other choice words for Jackson.
The previous year, Rashad Evans, who won the UFC light heavyweight title as a Jackson-Winkeljohn fighter, left the team after Jones – in a departure from the gym’s “teammates don’t fight teammates” policy – said he’d be willing to fight Evans if that’s what the UFC wanted.
Evans was bitterly critical of Jackson’s role in the controversy, which culminated in Jones’ victory over Evans in April 2012.
In neither case did Jackson respond in kind, choosing only to defend his position. He’s proud, he says, of his ability to negotiate the out-of-the-octagon tightrope.
“I don’t think politics could be any worse than what I’ve gone through,” he says. “And I’ve come out on top.”
The next round
Jackson, when time permits, looks back with some amazement at what he – with acknowledged help from many along the way – started back in the early 1990s.
His expertise in martial arts has led not only to his high-profile role in MMA, but work with police forces, the U.S. military and even Hollywood.
In 2011, Jackson worked as a technical adviser on the set of the MMA-themed movie, “Warrior.” He became friends with actor Frank Grillo, who is starring in an MMA-themed TV series, “Kingdom,” scheduled to debut on DirecTV this fall.
Jackson is a consultant on the series. Joe Stevenson, a former Jackson-Winkeljohn fighter, is training the actors.
“It really is fun,” Jackson says of the movie and TV work, “because it’s something different. It’s MMA, but it’s not MMA.”
Once, recently, Jackson found himself holding training mitts for rapper-actor LL Cool J.
“I used to listen to his music religiously when I was a kid,” Jackson says. “Now, ‘Holy crap, I’m training LL Cool J.’
“So, yeah, I have very humbling surreal moments. For sure.”
As for the future, Jackson neither sees an end in sight nor wants one.
“I still feel young,” he says. “I’m still hungry. I still enjoy training fighters, and I’m in the real enviable position that I’ve already trained multiple world champions.
“Really, there’s no pressure on me. I don’t need to prove anything; I’ve already proved it. So I can just keep doing this for fun, and that’s a powerful motivator.”